Baroque is the term used to indicate an ideology and a cultural season born in Rome and with original developments across Europe. We can find the characteristics of the Baroque era in literature, philosophy, art and music, during a period conventionally enclosed between the seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. In music this schematization is particularly difficult, let’s try to understand why.
It is unlikely that a single and uniform style and a single philosophy could cover a period of over 150 years, because there are many aspects of the Baroque and the musical style of this time, also for geographical, political and economic factors.
One of the major philosophical currents in the Baroque era derives from the interest of the Renaissance for Greek and Roman culture. These ancient peoples were convinced that music could be a powerful means of communication capable of arousing any type of emotion in the listener.
As a consequence of this thought, the composers of the XVI and XVII centuries wrote their music with the belief that they would have obtained the same effects if they had correctly imitated the ancient style.
This is how French humanist Artus Thomas describes a late 16th century performance:
I have ofttimes heard it said of Sieur Claudin Le Jeune (who has, without wishing to slight anyone, far surpassed the musicians of ages past in his understanding of these matters) that he had sung an air (which he had composed in parts)…and that when this air was rehearsed at a private concert it caused a gentleman there to put hand to arms and begin swearing out loud, so that it seemed impossible to prevent him from attacking someone: whereupon Claudin began singing another air…which rendered the gentleman as calm as before. This has been confirmed to me since by several who were there. Such is the power and force of melody, rhythm and harmony over the mind.
(Music in the Western World, by Piero Weiss, Richard Taruskin, p. 139)
It cannot be ignored that the possibility of writing and distributing music depends on the living conditions of the musician himself.
In our day, artists are free to compose according to the dictates of their personal vision of art. Baroque musicians were conditioned by the fact to be employed by some institution or by some powerful (noble or religious) and the music had been commissioned and paid for by them. The production of the composers was strongly linked to the customer’s needs.
The amount of material written by J.S.Bach does not derive from mere artistic inspiration but from the liturgical needs of the Leipzig church that had hired him.
Characteristics of Baroque music
The new interest in music’s dramatic and rhetorical possibilities gave rise to a wealth of new sound ideals in the Baroque era.
How can an audience be impressed, moved or made cheerful if not with strong contrasts? So loud sounds are used in opposition to the weaker ones, instruments with a very different sound are often used for contrast, “virtuoso” passages alternate with more melodic passages, “solo” and “tutti” (as well as in the “Concerto Grosso”). In the compositions of this period everything acquires an important role and everything contributes to emphasize emotions and amaze.
Composers also begin to be more precise in indicating which instrument should perform a certain part, no longer as in the Renaissance where it was lawful practice “sonar con ogni sorta d’instrumento” (playing with all sorts of instrument). Brilliant instruments such as the violin, trumpet and oboe triumph.
Monody and the “Basso Continuo” (Cyphered bass or Thorough Bass)
The most innovative feature of the baroque music was the use of the monody with accompaniment and the Cyphered Bass.
Polyphony & Counterpoint
Before the Baroque period a piece of music consisted mainly of one or more overlapping melodies, sometimes with improvised accompaniment. In an attempt to imitate ancient music (Greek or Roman), composers omit the use of complicated polyphonic tricks and focus mainly on a single monody with a simple accompaniment. If music is a form of rhetoric, what can replace a great speaker better than a solo singer?
The history of Counterpoint, which coincides with the history of Polyphony, begins with the first elaborate forms of “Ars antiqua” and “Ars nova”, then continues with the creations of the Franco-Flemish school, in which the variety and complexity of the techniques of Counterpoint have reached their peak and formed the basis of Renaissance polyphonic language.
Counterpoint was the art of superimposing multiple monodic parts “punctus contra punctum” creating effects of tension and relaxation of music but favoring the game between the various independent voices.
In the Baroque era the progressive affirmation of the harmonic sensitivity, the advent of the Basso Continuo and the accompanied monody (the “recitar cantando“), did not imply a decadence of the Counterpoint, which experienced a new arrangement in relation to the tonality and harmony: J.S. Bach’s work represents the apex of a very rich counterpoint elaboration inserted in a harmonic-tonal plane.
The practice of Basso Continuo is a method of musical notation in which the melody and the bass line are written out and the harmonic filling is indicated abbreviated with numbers, that’s why the name of “Basso Cifrato” (Ciphered Bass).
The Basso Continuo, also translated in Thorough Bass, remained a standard practice until the end of Baroque music period, that’s why this period is also known as the “Age of the Thorough Bass”.
Musical forms in Baroque
During the Baroque period different musical forms with different characteristics were widespread:
Toccata and Fantasia:
The “Toccata”, together with the “Fantasia”, was a musical genre cultivated mainly in Venice. The term derives from the Italian word “Toccare” (to play) the instrument, while fantasy is the translation of “Fantasia”. They are purely instrumental compositions whose typical elements were the virtuosic passages and the ornamental figurations. The main difference between those musical forms is given by the prevalence, in the Toccata, of a more fluid musical language and generally in slow movement and in a meditative character. The most important exponents are Merulo, Gabrieli and Gavazzoni and, later, Frescobaldi.
The word “Ricercare” indicates a free-style composition that develops the counterpoint in imitation, meaning that a musical phrase is repeated using different notes in an other voice. As his name indicates, the author explores the timbre and technical possibilities of the instrument in search of new counterpoint possibilities. The “Ricercare” is not only an instrumental form but also a vocal one in which there are imitative and canonical forms. Again we find the name of Cavazzoni and Gabrieli as great composers of the Ricercare
Melodrama is a theatrical show in which the actors tell a story through acting and singing. Towards the end of the 16th century, a group of intellectuals was formed, called “Camerata fiorentina” or “Camerata de’ Bardi“, which established the rules of the relationship between music and acting, between speech and singing. This way the style of “recitar cantando” was born. Music, poetry, costumes and scenography come together in a single great artistic event. The most representative authors were Monteverdi, Haendel, Pergolesi.
Oratorio and Passione:
In this kind of musical forms singers narrate events inspired by religious themes, accompanied by the harpsichord or organ and orchestra. Unlike Melodramma, there are no sets and singers can neither wear costumes nor act. The oratory is represented in a special building, often annexed to churches, from which it takes its name. Again among the authors we find Haendel, but surely it is J.S. Bach who brought this musical form to its peak.
Concerto Grosso is a composition for orchestra characterized by the alternation between a small group of soloists (“solo” or “concertino“) and the complete orchestra (“tutti” or “concerto grosso“). This division of roles creates soft and loud sound effects with the intent to amaze and improve emotions. The author of excellence is A. Corelli.
The solo Concerto was born with the development of virtuosity and the exaltation of instrumental technique. Here the protagonist is a solo instrument, often the violin, which communicates with the entire orchestra in a style called “Concertato”. The solo part is therefore written specifically for that instrument with the aim of enhancing its technical, timbre and sound possibilities. The musician who contributed most to its diffusion is undoubtedly A. Vivaldi.
Suite music form was born in France and is a group of instrumental pieces that originate from dance movements but which are no longer intended to accompany dances as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Fast songs always alternate with slower ones. They often have an introductory piece with an improvisational character, the Prelude, followed by music that takes the name from the dances: Allemande, Sarabande, Pavane, Sicilienne are the slow ones and Courante, Gigue, Bourrée, Gavotte, Minuet songs are the faster ones. The Suite is written and performed by a single instrument or by the orchestra. We remember among the authors J.Ph. Rameau, F. Couperin.
This instrumental piece takes its name from the fact that it was written to be played (in ancient Italian “sonare”) differentiating it, in this way, from the music for singing. Composed of three or four movements, it is dedicated to a single solo instrument, accompanied by the Basso Continuo, or two instruments, the Triosonata, always accompanied by the Basso Continuo.
Baroque music sound
With the rediscovery, in the second half of the twentieth century, of the music of the Baroque and Renaissance era, an attempt was made to understand how that music could “sound”. Unfortunately, the old teaching and musicological texts are not so precise in describing the instrumental techniques and the musical notation was rather summary, leaving the interpreter the freedom to play according to his tastes, the actual occasion and the audience to whom the performance was dedicated.
There is a problem with the pitch of the notes which have changed over time. In 1939 the tuning of the reference note A at 440Hz (diapason) was set universally, replacing the lower tone adopted in 1859 at 435Hz.
Previously there was no standard. The pitch varied considerably over time and according to places, but also according to the instruments used. For example, in stringed instruments, the practice was to tune in order to improve the sound and timbre of the instrument itself.
Written music was probably played lower than modern intonation. This is why today’s instrument makers, copying the old ones, adopt a 415Hz intonation for late Baroque music, a 392Hz intonation for French music, 440Hz for Italian music and 430Hz for Classical repertoire.
The timbre of Baroque music was also given by the variety of instruments used at that time and many are currently known while others are almost gone.
The main instruments among the keyboards were the Harpsichord and the Organ used both as solo instruments and performing the Basso Continuo together with other instruments such as the Lute, the Cello and the Viola da Gamba (all together took the name of “Continuo” to indicate a single musical function for all those instruments). Great development had the solo Violin but there was no lack of valid virtuosos and compositions for Oboe, Flute (Traversiere), Recorder (Flauto dritto) and the Viola da Gamba.
During Baroque the performance praxis were very personal, as already mentioned. The indications on the sheets, if present, are very limited as to the type of articulation, ornamentation and dynamics to use in pieces. Some treatises provide more precise indications both on the performance practice and on specific instrumental techniques (J. Quantz for the Traversiere, C. Ph. E. Bach for the Harpsichord, etc.). The materials used at the time (for example the gut strings on the guitar and the lute or bows used on the strings) today are not always well reproduced even with all modern philological research.
At this point, to enter more into the merits of the style and characteristics of the music of the Baroque era, it would be necessary to discuss about the particular expressions of Baroque music in different areas of Europe.
If it is true that in the previous period the canons of writing and music it was almost universal, a composition of an Italian or German author could be easily understood and appreciated by a French public, for the knowledge of its interpretative codes, in the Baroque with the birth of the accompanied monody, that “second practice” indicated by Claudio Monteverdi, popular elements are introduced into cultured music thus becoming more closely linked to the territory.
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